Islay Scotch with a Sherry Accent

Laphroaig Cairdeas 2014 is a double-barreled pleasure
Laphroaig Cairdeas Amontillado
Laphroaig Cairdeas Amontillado

Reflections on a full cask.

Something there is that loves a barrel.

For centuries, all the important drinks in the word — whiskies and other spirits, wine, even beer — have been made in, stored in, and shipped in barrels and casks, generally oak or chestnut, but sometimes other woods. The discovery was simple — in a time when barrels of various sizes were the only practical large containers for liquids, people who made and traded wines and spirits decided they also liked the taste that wood imparted.

And they’ve been playing around with it ever since, especially the people who make Scotch. Whereas winemakers often proclaim their love of the minimal influences of “neutral wood” (an oxymoron), Scotch distillers love the influence of flavors they get from pre-owned barrels (mainly bourbon and sherry), especially for their single malt and single barrel releases.

To veteran drinkers, this is old hat, or at least old oak, but it’s fun at times to reflect on how things got that way and where they are going. Which brings us to the Laphroaig Cairdeas 2014 Amontillado Edition. 

Laphroaig is a distillery located on the island of Islay, which is the Valhalla for single malts that have a lot of peaty, smoky aromas and flavors. If Highland Scotches were cigarettes, Islay malts would be Cuban cigars. Scotch distilleries are famous for their limited, expensive releases, and Laphroaig does one annually for its official fan club, but with enough left over to sell a few drams to the rest of us.

This one is an 8-year-old that has been double-matured, first in bourbon casks and then for a year in a sherry hogshead, which is a larger barrel with a more manly name. It is 51.4 percent alcohol and sells for $75 a bottle.

Tasted with a drop of water, the nose comes up like a peat-smoked woolen jacket, comfy and pleasant. A mouthful of Scotch often launches a thousand descriptors, but the primary ones here are dried herbs, honey, smoke, sea salt, aged toffee, and a touch of sweet apple tart.  The taste is firm and the burn is pleasurable.

As snow is falling outside, I’ll have another splash.

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